A new life, an uneasy choice
By Cynthia Romero on September 17, 2009
EL PASO — For those living in a country where drug war violence is an everyday occurrence, looking at the bigger picture isn’t always easy. Signs of the drug war can be seen everywhere in border communities like El Paso and Juárez. As the violence escalates, its political, social and economic effects continue to weigh heavily on the sister cities and their residents.
“The moving of people from Juárez to El Paso isn’t anything new,” UTEP political science professor Howard Campbell said. “However, these people are virtually being expelled from their city because of safety issues.”
According to Campbell, often times people’s emotions on the drug war are mixed. “There are those who are scared but there’s been so much news on the drug war going on that it’s easy for them to become desensitized,” he said. “It’s almost like weather reports for these people, they hear about it everyday on the news.”
Campbell, who goes to Juárez regularly to do research, said that for El Pasoans, the drug war has its own set of issues. “There’s so much ignorance about El Paso and Juárez and the relationship between these two cities,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of Americans in Juárez anymore and that’s a bad thing because we’ve become so narrow minded. Many El Pasoans continue to think that they don’t have to worry about Juárez because it’s in a different country but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Real estate broker, Dan Olivas, who has been conducting his own survey with 400 local real estate agents, (the city’s only survey) on the renting and purchasing of homes in El Paso by Juarenses, said that he has seen an increase of 8 to 10 percent in transactions over the past year. “There has been substantial renting and purchasing of homes because of the violence in Juárez,” said Olivas. “It has definitely helped this side of the border economically because of the increase people living here.”
Olivas admits that the surveying task has not been an easy one. “At times it can be hard to quantify because most of these people don’t want to disclose where they’re from and with good reason,” he said. “The majority of the time, it’s just easier for them to pay cash.” The transition, although economically beneficial to El Paso, has also proven bittersweet for many, including Olivas. “It’s a really sad situation when your neighbors are going through such tragedy and you know that they left part of their life in Juárez and to know that we’re benefitting from that,” he said. I think that as long as the violence continues, we’ll have more and more people make the move.”
UTEP economics professor Tom Fullerton said the cities’ interdependence drives the pressure to keep Juarenses coming to El Paso.
“Approximately 10 to 15 percent of all retail sales in El Paso are from people who come from Juarez,” Fullerton said. “Downtown businesses thrive on those coming from Juárez. It’s undeniable that the recession in Mexico has had its effect on their businesses because there’s been reduced investments in Juárez,” he said.
Fullerton, along with Olivas thinks that the process of keeping “tabs” on how many people are actually making a permanent home in the United States, is a difficult one. “I’d say that we will never really know any solid numbers because no one’s been keeping track, there’s no official count because it’s hard to,” Fullerton said. “There are indicators like the purchasing of homes and investments in real estate here in El Paso. There’s always this ‘rooting’ that occurs before people actually make the actual move.”
While many on the both sides of the border remain hopeful, Campbell doesn’t see an end to the violence any time soon. “There is potential for more violence and it’s silly to say that it hasn’t already spilled over to our side because it has,” he said. “Mexican drug cartels are in every part of the U.S. and they’re careful about being violent here because they don’t want the law enforcement to come down on them, that’s why they’ll keep terrorizing those in Mexico.”
UTEP Chicano Studies professor, Dennis Bixler-Marquez, said he thinks those from Juárez are moving for more than just safety reasons. “I do think that there has been a growth pattern — it’s a transitional phenomenon — but I think that this is also more of an economic decision,” Bixler-Marquez said. “There are definitely those people who are investing in the real estate market over here because of the recession in Mexico.”
Bixler-Marquez said he has seen reactions to the violence in Mexico change over the past couple years. “About a year and a half ago, students of mine who were from Juárez would scoff at the fact that people thought violence was bad in Juárez, but now I’ve had some of those same people come to me and tell me that they are scared.” Many of these people already had their foot in the door and both of these factors have just made them put the other one in as well, he said.
According to Bixler-Marquez, there are two possible resolutions to the violence. “You can eliminate the cartels only to have them replaced by another cartel or you can have a new political party,” Bixler-Marquez said. A new type of cultural transformation is taking place in the types of people who make a new life in the United States, he said. “For the most part, when Mexicans move into the United States, they’re placed on the bottom of the totem pole, but more and more affluent Mexicans are coming to the States who can establish a wealthier life for themselves. If they have capital, they become major players.”
Perhaps as a sign of worsening conditions, Campbell said, he has been receiving emails for help from people in Juárez. “I get emails daily from people looking for jobs, homes, apartments, anyway to come across,” he said. “It’s complicated, this relationship between these two cities. I feel like El Pasoans have to start thinking about what they can do to help. At the end of the day, we have to stop pointing the finger at Mexico.”